Like many people, I consider myself spiritual but not religious. Whoever first made this distinction did so to distance himself from the strictures of religion, but to also acknowledge a belief in a higher pursuit, something completely personal and religiously neutral. I am no different, but if I had to choose a religion with which to say I am most aligned, I would say Buddhism. Without directly addressing the idea of a supreme being, Buddhism is not exactly a religion, but more of a philosophy. Which fits perfectly with the idea of “spiritual but not religious”. Not coincidentally, whenever I hear people use this expression, they virtually always admit to dabbling in some sort of Eastern tradition, be it Buddhism, Hinduism, or just Hatha Yoga.
Buddhism is often appealing to people such as myself because its principles tend to be more universal and less dogmatic—issues that I (and others) often take with religion in general. But the thing that originally sparked my interest in Buddhism was the first of the three Noble Truths: Life is suffering.
Now I know that there are better ways to translate the idea of Dukkha, such as “Life entails dissatisfaction”, but the first time I heard this utterly blunt admission, it struck me as being almost sardonic or snarky. It’s something so obvious, something anyone could easily agree with—that sometimes life just plain sucks—and the fact that it was listed as the first basic truth, I knew that this was something I could identify with, something more near the idea of universal truth.
There are plenty of people the world over who live their lives from the day they are born until the day they die adhering stalwartly to some form of religious tradition. There are also many people who are either not adherent to any tradition, or who are only passively adherent to the tradition in which they were raised. These types of people will sometimes only turn to religion in times of suffering when they are looking for some sort of comfort, to find meaning in their suffering, to know that everything will be okay, and to feel that in they will eventually find happiness. With Buddhism you are told, You are not alone—we are all suffering.
Many of things I’ve believed in during my life, things I thought were universally true, have changed over time. For example, I was born into Mormonism and I once believed that abortion was wrong and unjustifiable except in the most extreme of circumstances. Now I feel that abortion is undesirable, but justifiable in most cases. I am also no longer Mormon.
It is good to modify your belief system once you identify parts that you feel to be wrong, but because of this, I find myself searching for the most basic of ideas, things that I can feel confidant won’t change. In an attempt to ensure that I won’t have to do too much readjusting, I try to keep the list extremely short. So far my list consists of only one thing: basic human rights.
I believe that a basic human right entails the most universally intuitive of ideas and requires little to no explanation. A person’s right to live, and to live free, is something that should go without saying. Torture, murder, arbitrary imprisonment—these are things that no one should have to endure nor explain nor justify why not enduring them is an expectation. If my definition of a basic human right is too ambiguous, the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights expresses the idea quite unambiguously, starting out with “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”
A belief in basic and equal human rights is inherent to Buddhism and is embodied in its most recurrent theme: compassion. To act with compassion is to always respect another’s basic human rights—compassion, by virtue of its nature, implies this. The inclination to feel compassion and to act upon it is intuitively a part of the human spirit.
I have been in the Army for all of my adult life. Like anything, I want to perform effectively as a soldier and do my job well. I also want to live a life of compassion and to be free to pursue something higher. (I hesitate to use the term “enlightenment” to describe what I am pursuing because of the grandiose image of self-importance and resultant hypocrisy it invokes, but this is essentially what I mean.) But a soldier’s job of killing violates the most basic of human rights and the first cardinal precept of Buddhism: not killing.
This essay is an attempt at a practical philosophy to reconcile these two things—how to be an effective soldier while not at the expense of one’s enlightenment or compassion.
War is natural — Enlightenment is natural — War, enlightenment not mutually exclusive
War is ordinary. Though modern warfare is a practice composed mostly of unnatural acts, such as the suppression of one’s own fear or overcoming the natural aversion to killing your own species, the occurrence as a whole is natural. Regardless of how much we as a species might want to forsake war, the truth is that it still occurs, and can be counted on to occur, with quite a bit of regularity.
Righteousness is also ordinary. The vocabulary and abstractions used to communicate the intuitive desire to pursue some higher goal may vary from person to person, but it can be assumed that most people will strive to do what is “right” according to their own value system, be it personal, or according to a religion. With the exception perhaps of the most devoted nihilists or irretrievable sociopaths, it is natural for people generally to try to live their lives according to some standard for correct living, often with a higher goal as the intent, be it heaven, or nirvana, or enlightenment.
Assuming that war and, say the pursuit of enlightenment, are both natural, how can the two be reconciled? More specifically, how can a soldier pursue both enlightenment and good warriorship, and also be effective at both? If both are natural, can the ability for the two to coexist also be considered natural?
It could be argued that just because two things are natural, it is not implicit that they both are able to coexist. It could also be argued that war and its horrors are not natural, hence the difficulty, or even impossibility, for it to allow its practitioner to find enlightenment. But to presuppose that there could be no war, or that war is never justified, is not realistic. War is not ephemeral or imaginary—it is a very real thing. To state that something is unnatural is essentially a semantic argument, such as stating that pedophilia is unnatural because it goes against a healthy behavioral nature. Usually when something is labeled “unnatural”, it is for the benefit of a social norm. An apple with the gravitational force of Saturn would be unnatural, as are Star-bellied Sneeches, the reason being that the former goes against laws of physics and can therefore not exist, and the latter is from the imagination of Dr. Seuss. The definition used here is: If it exists, it is natural. War and the pursuit of enlightenment are natural and should not be mutually exclusive.
For the sake of this essay, it will be assumed that there are times that war and violence can be justified. At the very least, it will be assumed that violence employed for the sake of the inalienable right to self-defense is justified. Although this would be considered common sense to many people, it is important for it to be stated that for a soldier who wishes to be effective and who is weighing various philosophies in search of enlightenment, pacifism can not be considered. Pacifism, though a wonderful concept, expects too much of the modern world where war and violence continue to flourish, and would not be practical for a soldier who wishes to be effective as a soldier. This is not to say that pacifism has no place in the modern world, only that it has no place for an effective soldier fighting a justified war and using justified violence. Furthermore, it will be assumed that war can be justified under certain circumstance and violence can be justified under similar and analogous circumstances. The presupposition of justified war and justified violence is implicit to the arguments of this essay, but their explication and their delineation in contrast to unjustified war and unjustified violence are outside the purview of this essay.
Introspection —The National Guard —The Infantry
Ideally, an effective spiritual praxis for soldiers would be developed by studying several historical warrior traditions then doing research across all branches of service and military professional fields in search of something that can be applied universally throughout the military. But to do so would require expansive resources that this author does not have. However, this is not necessarily a shortcoming. As a primary source, my own direct personal experiences, including my own observation and introspection throughout my career as a soldier during peacetime and during combat, are used in favor of outside sources of information. The thoughts, observations, and maxims of others are used in support of (or sometimes in contrast to) my own conclusions and various philosophical traditions will be looked at as they apply to a soldier, but “the individual” is central to the arguments herein and self-analysis lends itself to this.
In addition to being limited to the US Army, since this is the only branch in which I have served, this essay is also limited in scope to service in the National Guard (part-time), as opposed to active duty (full-time), and to the Infantry (grunt), as opposed to any other military occupational field (pogue). Though limited in some ways, these narrow parameters are not limitations in spirit. It is my hope that by closely analyzing my own experiences introspectively, regardless of the implicit bias and its accompanying pitfalls, something is taken into account that wouldn’t be otherwise through mostly external research.
Goals —The Three Periods
Sowing —Cultivating —Reaping
To make it a goal to be an effective soldier, given its limited context, is relatively easy when compared to the idea of attaining enlightenment. Current military practices provide many concrete and quantifiable standards by which to judge one’s effectiveness as a soldier, such as marksmanship and physical fitness tests. But to make it a goal to be an effective human is ambitious to say the least and mostly non-quantifiable. There are certain benchmarks that could be established to provide an idea of progress, such as one’s perceived level of contentedness or happiness, but for the most part any standard would be abstract at best. Nonetheless, the same intuition that is employed as an impetus to be an effective human is the same intuition that can be used to judge one’s success.
By this thinking, the approach to being an effective human—or the path to enlightenment, or a life of compassion, depending on your preferred definition—is a holistic one and being an effective soldier in addition to this is a matter of integrating effective soldiering into a holistic approach to life.
To perform as an effective soldier, it is important to identify some of the phases of one’s life as a soldier, as to break it into parts that can be addressed separately. By this thinking, the life of a soldier can be broken down in three distinct periods:
- Life during peacetime and in training
- Life during wartime and in combat
- Life after military service
These three periods will often occur in this order and each once, but this is not necessarily always the case. Some soldiers are deployed into combat more than once. Some soldiers leave the military and rejoin again later. Some soldier may experience one of the periods only briefly. Some soldiers may experience a period for a great period of time. Although a great deal of soldiers may never experience a period of combat during their careers, this essay is concerned more with a soldier’s lifecycle that does include at least one period of combat. Frankly, it is the presence of this period during a soldier’s career that is of the most interest.
It is vital that these three periods be seen as inextricably linked. By this, the three periods could be instead seen as such:
- Sowing Period (peacetime/training)
- Cultivating Period (wartime/combat)
- Reaping Period (post-service)
As far as the military’s mission is concerned (winning it’s nation’s wars), a soldier need only be effective during periods one and two. Although there are many processes and systems in place for a soldier after his service, (most notably the US Department of Veterans Affairs) the effectiveness of the military is judged by its ability to accomplish the missions it has. Herein lays the biggest obstacle for a soldier who also wishes to be an effective human after his service. All too often a soldier who was effective during his service and during wartime, is later haunted by demons as a result his service. What works to accomplish the mission in combat may not accomplish the mission to live a life of compassion or to pursue enlightenment. All too often soldiers reap later in life what they carelessly had sown during their military careers.
As far as a holistic approach to ones life is concerned, the life period after service is just as important as any other period. To be effective as a compassionate person during this period, it is important to address the periods before it and that a pattern of compassion be established, particularly during times of combat. To do this it is important that the pattern be ingrained into a soldier during training and peacetime.
Given the connectedness of the three periods, they can seen as a process where seeds that are planted during training are cultivated during combat and reaped for the rest of the soldier’s life. To be effective both as a soldier and as a person of compassion, great care must be given to the sowing and cultivating periods.
The Army in its current state does an excellent job by the soldier during the training-sowing period, and a so-so job during the combat-cultivating period. Training doctrines, in the context of providing the soldier with the fundamental skills necessary for combat, are highly developed and effective, but little is done effectively at integrating into it a combat-ready value system. The execution of these skills in combat are also highly developed on a technical level, but also leaving much to be desired to aid the soldier at upholding a durable value system. Once the soldier enters the final period of soldiering and is released into a combat-deprived life as a civilian, the shortcomings of their former system often fail outright and the soldier finds himself feeling abandoned and adrift at sea morally, socially, and spiritually. Simply put, for a soldier to be fully effective once he enters the third period, he needs spiritual strengthening measures established from the day he signs his enlistment contract till the day he is released.
Considerations —The de facto Army value system
Absurdism —Existentialism —Cynicism
The official Army Values are:
- Selfless Service
- Personal Courage
As an acronym and mnemonic device, they spell LDRSHIP and are printed on a small plastic tag required to be worn on the dog tags of all soldiers. At face value, this is a good list of core values a soldier should strive to uphold. In reality, it just another list of words that soldiers are required to memorize and regurgitate on demand. At some point during basic training, a soldier is given a “block of instruction” on the values. To be honest, I have to recollection of any such instruction. Herein lays the problem. Soldiers do not retain such information well and drill sergeants—a soldier’s first and often most memorable exposure to military values—do not present the values with much conviction.
To be fair, the Army goes to great lengths to instill in its troops many solid values, particularly discipline and selflessness. Ultimately, a soldier must choose on an individual level that he will uphold himself to a higher standard that he might not have otherwise, but this is typically done on a personal basis. Outwardly, the de facto value system in the military life is one much more negative—something that affects adversely the “sowing” period of the soldier’s life.
As a device to teach discipline during basic training, certain expectations are put into place that, on the surface, might seem absurd. The reason for this is simple—teach the soldier that it is more effective on the whole to follow orders without question and to learn to do small tasks with discipline so that one might apply that discipline to larger tasks. For example, the basic trainee is taught that it is important to keep his boots shined. On a practical level it is to keep the leather in good condition and to aid in its capacity to repel water. On another level, it honors the Army in general to give respect to the uniform and all those who have worn it. But on a psychological level, the basic trainee is conditioned to believe that if he does not keep his boots adequately shined, he is purposely disrespecting the Army and giving no consideration to his own well-being by not keep his boots properly maintained. Common sense reasoning is eventually overridden when failure to meet this standard results in the physical punishment of the recalcitrant soldier along with those in his team, squad, or platoon. Physical pain and overwhelming peer pressure shape the soldier and he quickly learns to follow his orders, regardless of how absurd they may seem. In this “attention to detail” is also instilled, the correlation being that if a soldier can devote enough attention to the detail of a properly shined boot, he will also be able to devote the attention required to keep his weapon properly maintained in combat or to keep a keen eye out for any immediate threats (the enemy) once on the battlefield. This is an effective and time-tested way to train a soldier to internalize certain necessary values, an unfortunate side-effect being that the ability to discern the difference between absurd values used for illustration purposes and legitimate values are sometimes impeded.
Along similar lines, when a soldier wishes to avoid punishment or the humiliation of his peers, the appearance of correctness will take precedence over the spirit of correctness. This pseudo-ethos of appearances, a kind of existentialism where “If I can’t see it, it doesn’t exist”, spawns an anti-philosophy that is basic to the fabric of military life. Case in point, one of the most common and widely used acronyms in the military is CYA, for “cover your ass”.
The first time I witnessed this in action was when I first enlisted in the Utah Army Reserves at the age of 17. I was with another soldier at my first official drill at Fort Douglas. I hadn’t even been to boot camp yet. He and I were apparently not doing what we were supposed to have been doing (buying snacks instead of staying in the office, I forget exactly) and when we encountered a superior, we were asked what were doing. The soldier I was with quickly gave a response that was completely false—that we had been given instructions to visit so-and-so over in such-and-such building to take care of such-and-such. I didn’t say a word but I was shocked that he had lied. Once our superior accepted this explanation, the soldier said, “C-Y-A. Ya always gotta cover your ass.”
At the time, it seemed to me that it would have been easier to tell the truth about what we were doing because the infraction was minor. But military culture is prone to engendering lying, and in many cases tacitly encouraging it. Since responsibility and accountability are implicit components to any organization, culpability and deniability are as well. Leaders don’t want to know about the illicit activities of their subordinates if it could also get them in trouble. Because of this, it has become standard procedure to lie about ones activities. If a soldier wishes to leave post and go to a strip club, despite the First Sergeant’s orders that it is verboten, he would tell his squad leader that he is going to the movies and will be back later. There is often an unspoken agreement that the soldier is “allowed”, in a sense, to break the rule, so long as he successfully accomplishes his ruse without getting caught, sometimes to go as far as to buy a movie ticket in advance. This ingenuity at accomplishing the mission of going to the strip club is the kind of creative problem-solving that is seen—at least in the soldiers’ minds—as what makes the US military so successful in combat. And this rationalization is repeatedly reinforced through the storytelling cycle of the soldiers’ exploits.
When these de facto values (or anti-values) are cultivated by the soldier through his career and particularly when they are cultivated during combat, what will eventually be reaped is a deep and pervasive cynicism. When a soldier has already established a method of problem-solving where the end justifies the means, he will invariably take the same approach during combat.
The various methods of problem-solving through moral behavior can be seen as variations on the Golden Rule of “Do unto others you would be done by”. According to William T. Vollmann in his exegesis on violence and its justifications, Rising Up and Rising Down, he establishes in what he calls “The Moral Calculus” that the only variation on the Golden Rule that is always justified is The Empath’s Golden Rule:
“Do unto others, not only as you would be done by, but also as they would be done by. In the case of any variance, do the more generous thing.”
This definition more than adequately supports the spirit of compassion and can be considered the interpretation necessary for anyone wishing to find a path to enlightenment.
Two other variations of the Golden Rule that often apply to moral actors on the battlefield are The Soldier’s Golden Rule:
“Do unto others as you are done by”
And the Terrorist’s Golden Rule:
“Do as your end requires”
The former variation primarily addresses the inherent right to self-defense, but little else, and the latter addresses the bottom rung of moral codes, and unfortunately describes all too often the reasoning employed by soldiers.
A variation that would describe the common value system in modern warfare would be:
“Give the appearance of the Golden Rule, convince yourself you follow the Soldier’s Golden Rule, but do as your end requires”
When this kind of thinking pervades a soldier’s career and combat experience, what results is the development of a cynicism where the soldier feels everyone, including himself, is only doing as his end requires. When this belief is cultivated by the soldier while witnessing and participating in acts of violence, it is difficult to reap much else other than cynicism and existential despair.
Considerations —Some typical soldier personality traits
Pathos —Mythos —Bathos
To lucidly explore the value systems of soldiering, it is necessary to address the personalities of the soldiers in a manner equally as frank. An effective soldier understands himself and an effective philosophy must understand him. Once both of these conditions are met, spiritual progress can be more fully realized.
One of the more touted hallmarks of American democracy is its all-volunteer military. In a world where military service is often compulsory, it is a point of pride for those who fill the ranks of our military that they have chosen to do so of their own volition—the very spirit of liberty. But if service is never from conscription, who exactly joins the military?
To inductively make presumptions about why people choose to join the military is highly subjective and a slippery proposition at best, but to assert honest, non-scientific observations, without causal caveats, can be done to some degree of impunity. For anyone who has served in the Army long enough, or in any social sphere for that matter, it can be said that there are certain recurring personality traits. While there are many superlative traits commonly found in service members, the traits of more immediate interest, when addressing obstacles to enlightenment, are those of a dysfunctional flavor.
In Richard Strozzi-Heckler’s book, In Search of the Warrior Spirit: Teaching Awareness Discipline to the Green Berets, the most recurrent obstacle he faced, while trying to teach Aikido and meditation practices to soldiers, was simply getting the training to connect with them on an internal level. His training principles were sound, but the practices employed failed in many ways for not having taken into account the soldiers’ foibles. Most notably was the barrier of “manliness”. The soldiers were resistant to much of the training because the program did little to address basic communication. On an emotional and psychological level, Strozzi-Heckler simply didn’t “speak the language”. When recounting an exercise meant to get the soldiers to expand there sense of identity by inwardly exploring their weaknesses, Strozzi-Heckler wrote of one soldier, “â€¦he doesn’t know how to make the transition from a smaller identity to a larger one.”
The National Guard is a common stop for active duty soldiers before being fully released from their service obligation. It is also a place for part-time patriots, students needing money for tuition, and a sundry assortment of men and women with divergent values and goals—sometimes shockingly so. It is also a haven for boy-men in search of themselves.
One personality type found with great frequency is the “Somewhat-broken Man”. Service members who were discharged from the active duty military for disciplinary reasons often find a home in the National Guard with its more lenient entry requirements. Similarly, service members who feel they somehow didn’t adequately fulfill their prior obligation also join, such as the pogue who regrets not having served in the Infantry. Also, those who have had difficult personal lives, be it from failed relationships or failed professional lives, often find solace in the Guard. Also in this category are those who feel obligated to serve based on a need to “work off bad karma”, or find a feeling of penance for whatever demons, be them real or perceived, they can find reconciliation from by putting themselves in the service of something difficult and to be a part of something bigger in hopes of regaining some honor in their lives. This type of personality will usually perceive—undeservedly—that his pathos is of great gravitas. The full-blown “Broken Man” is a Hollywood archetype romanticized by Somewhat-broken Man, but he simply lacks the rÃ©sumÃ© to actually be him.
A pastime that abounds in the National Guard is the telling of yarns, ranging in degree from the exaggerated fish story to outright pathological lying. The nature of the soldier’s job lends itself to storytelling, but the degree to which stories are embellished and augmented by some of the more prolific storytellers is often to a severity that can most likely only be described in clinical terms. Despite the handful of epically pathological, the majority of those telling stories (who are a sizeable percentage of the National Guard population) usually do so for their own amelioration. Part of the appeal of being in the military is to become a part of a mythos—and to perpetuate it.
A third common personality trait, that completes the trinity, is that of the Poseur. It is not uncommon thinking that by joining the Army you will somehow become a super trooper after a little training. The Poseur can come in different varieties and manifestation, but it also shouldn’t be assumed that this trait is all bad. Since some aspects of effective soldiering comes down to what is collectively perceived (i.e. a leader who exudes confidence even while terrified), it should be of no surprise that those who are adroit at manipulating their social standing by way of constructing an appropriate patina are often also quite effective as soldiers.
These three personality types are interconnected and usually can be found to varying degrees in all soldiers—this also goes for soldiers of great character who normally would not be characterized so flippantly. Even the most selfless and genuine have to account for their decision to join and to be honest with themselves as to what motivated them to do so.
Identity —The three spheres
Abstract identity —Functional identity —True identity
In Western culture, great importance is put on the individual and individuality—it is a building block to capitalism and democracy. In the military, great importance is placed on the group and identifying as a group—this is vital to success in endeavors that require enormous concerted efforts. A thorough understanding of both the individual and the group is necessary for any path toward enlightenment.
The military is correct to spend a great deal of time training soldiers to identify as a group, to be rewarded as a group, and at times be punished as a group. But again, when the soldier enters the reaping period of this life, the same sense of group identity that brought him so much satisfaction can be very thing that causes him to suffer in its absence.
In this regard, a soldier can be seen as being at the center of three spheres of identity:
- The bigger group (the Army, the military, the United States)
- The smaller group (company, platoon, squad)
- The individual (individual, human)
A source of great pride for nearly all soldiers is being part of something bigger than themselves. Duty and service all feed into feelings of satisfaction from patriotism—to have been a part of the Army, to be an American, and to enjoy all the freedoms and prestige that come with this. This level of identity is quite expansive and abstract in nature, but vital.
On a more practical level, the soldier has only to perform his job well within the group he is immediately a part of. When a soldier works day after day with the same group of men, performing tasks that require a high level of teamwork, there naturally comes a strong sense of identity as being a part of that team. This level of identity is still based on a group, but one that is concrete.
The innermost sphere of identity is the individual himself. It is this sphere that is the most crucial. For a soldier to be effective in the first two periods, he must suppress an identity rooted in individuality and embrace one based on the group. For a soldier to be effect during the third period, it is vital that he come full-circle and embrace his individuality again. Only as an individual with a strong sense of personal autonomy can the soldier gracefully make the transition from the second to third period. Most soldiers will view their experience of service in the military as one of the most significant components of their lives. Furthermore, for soldiers who have seen combat, the perceived significance of the experience can overwhelm them if the memory is not properly integrated into the rest of their lives. During this period it is important that the soldier not allow the events of combat to dominate their identity. It is easy to look upon one’s own past with nostalgia and it can be terrifically difficult for the soldier to identify with other humans if he feels that the only thing he can identify with, and the only people who can identify with him, are lost in the history of his memory.
For a Buddhist, the ultimate realization is that the self is nothing, sometimes referred to as “emptiness”. As a member of the human race and part of its collective existence, the self is both simultaneously all of it and none of it. For a soldier to be effective in the third period, he must divorce himself from the attachment he might have to the Army and his combat experiences. Strozzi-Heckler stated that, “warriorship is individuality, not homogeneity.” The usefulness of a soldier is the concern of the Army only while he is in service. After he is no longer serving, it is up to him to care for his own well being and carry himself on his own path.
Buddhism —Bushido —Aikido
Because of its intuitive understand of suffering, the spirit of Buddhism is already at the heart of every soldier’s life. The Four Noble Truths are both clear-eyed and hopeful and an excellent base to developing a philosophy for soldiers:
- Life entails suffering
- Suffering is a result of clinging, craving
- There is an end to suffering
- The way to the end of suffering is the path
The path, known as The Eightfold Path, offers further guidance to aid in the cessation of suffering:
- Right view
- Right thought
- Right speech
- Right action
- Right livelihood
- Right effort
- Right mindfulness
- Right concentration
This is where the philosophy gets tricky for a soldier. Right action includes five cardinal precepts:
- Not killing
- Not stealing
- Not lying
- No intoxicants/unhealthy food
- No sexual misconduct
Although soldiers typically love sybaritic pleasures such as intoxicants and sexual misconduct, the precept of not killing presents the most apparent issue since killing is ultimately the essential function of a soldier. Buddhism is an excellent and vital starting point for a philosophy for soldiers, but unfortunately does not address directly the very real dilemma facing a soldier trying to doall he can to follow the idea of right action.
Bushido is the Eastern tradition of the Samurai. Being a warrior tradition, Bushido automatically becomes an excellent candidate for a good modern day warrior philosophy.
The most well-known line from Hagakure, a book of Samurai ethics from the 18th century by Tsunetomo Yamamoto, is:
“I have found that the way of the samurai is death. This means that when you are compelled to choose between life and death, you must quickly choose death.”
This idea was one most central to the philosophy of the samurai—to overcome the fear of death and therefore become an effective soldier, you must commit yourself to the idea that you are already dead, that your death is inevitable and you should live your life to its fullest in the present moment, that when presented with a life or death situation, be devoted to the idea you have already chosen death.
The Four Vows of a samurai, which Tsunetomo advocated reciting every morning, show a regard for the three spheres of the soldier’s identity:
- Never be outdone in the Way of the Samurai
- To be of good use to the master
- To be filial toward my parents
- To manifest great compassion, and to act for the sake of Man
This list, often seen in an exclamatory form, advocates first a devotion to the art of Bushido, then next a devotion to two groups, the master and the family. The fourth exclamation advocates a devotion to the innermost (or outermost, depending on your preferred interpretation) identity of the compassion for all humankind.
In the book The Way of the Samurai, written by Yukio Mishima in 1967, Mishima interprets Hagakure to have three characteristics:
- A philosophy of action
- A philosophy of love
- A living philosophy
Essential to a samurai, as with any warrior, is a philosophy of action. And essential to one wishing to live a life of compassion can surely agree with a philosophy of love. However, much of the philosophies imparted in Hagakure are not nearly so universal and fall prey to the same problem of not addressing the issues at hand for a soldier beyond the second period (combat).
Tsunetomo wrote, “The veteran samurai thinks not of victory or defeat but merely fights insanely to the death.” Continuing on the theme of death and military service, he also wrote,
If always prepared to die, a samurai begins to think of himself as already dead, if he is diligent in serving his lord and perfects himself in the military arts, surely he will never come to shame.
This is the sort of single-minded devotion to the group (and explicit avoidance of shame) that inevitably creates an obstacle for the soldier who is no longer serving. Furthermore, Hagakure seems to not always view civilians with a very high regard. Nihilism (existentialism + cynicism) is a recurrent theme, but Tsunetomo’s poor regard for people is apparent when he wrote, “human beings are extraordinarily cleverly devised puppets.” An additional argument is that modern war is not, in many ways, the experience it has been in the past, nor the kind of war that the samurai prepared their culture for. Strozzi-Heckler described this by writing,
We must face that war is no longer, and has not been for centuries, an accountable initiation for youth into manhood, or a trial ground for heroism, service, courage, and the transcendent.
Though effective in many ways, the Bushido philosophy ultimately falls short of providing a modern warrior with a more complete philosophy.
The martial art of Aikido, developed by Morihei Ueshiba in the early 20th century, is based in part on jujitsu with an emphasis on throwing and joint-lock techniques and “blending” rather than clashing with the energy of an opponent. The techniques of Aikido are intended to divert or immobilize an opponent, rather than wound or kill him. Ueshiba wrote, “To control aggression without inflicting injury is the Art of Peace.”
The philosophies of Ueshiba are contained in the short book of aphoristic wisdom called The Art of Peace, similar in style and spirit to the Tao Te Ching. Ueshiba served as an infantryman in the Russo-Japanese war, but detested war and violence. The first chapter of The Art of Peace reads as a manifesto for these philosophies:
The Art of Peace begins with you. Work on yourself and your appointed task in the Art of Peace. Everyone has a spirit that can be refined, a body that can be trained in some manner, a suitable path to follow. You are here for no other purpose than to realize your inner enlightenment. Foster peace in your own life and then apply the Art to all you encounter.
The Art of Peace consists of 113 single-page chapters that address many aspects of compassion and peace as they apply to the warrior. Another example:
The Way of the Warrior is based on humanity, love, and sincerity; the heart of martial valor is true bravery, wisdom, love, and friendship. Emphasis on the physical aspects of warriorship is futile, for the power of the body is always limited.
The essential principles of Aikido are contained in what are known as the Four Gratitudes and the Four Virtues. The Four Gratitudes are:
- Gratitude toward the universe
- Gratitude toward our ancestors and predecessors
- Gratitude toward the plants and animals that sacrifice their lives of us
- Gratitude toward our fellow human beings
For moral bearing, the Four Virtues of Aikido are:
In the third edition of In Search of the Warrior Spirit, Strozzi-Heckler adds an addendum about the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program (MCMAP) and how his work teaching Aikido to Special Forces soldiers in the classified Trojan Warrior program of the mid-80’s influenced it. The Marine Corps was looking to integrate a warrior value system into its doctrine that could address the development of a marine more holistically, specifically with regard to values that would benefit the marine, the Corps, the mission, and the marine as a citizen. Strozzi-Heclker took part in the development of the program and recalled that “values” would be the primary measure of its success when he wrote,
At one point the Commandant told me that the values section had to be the core of the program. He clearly stated that building an ethical, moral, and spiritual character was essential to the success of the program. If it relied only on learning martial arts moves [it] would have failed.
When the Army chose to teach Aikido to Green Berets, they had chosen the correct philosophy but took the wrong path. The soldiers were resistant be the Trojan Warrior project because it did not adequately address the considerations such as typical soldier personality types. The Marine Corps learned from the Army’s mistakes and got it right by effectively addressing both of these issues in the MCMAP.
As outlined in Marine Corps Order 1500.54A, The MCMAP’s stated goals are: “Make America’s Marines, winning our nation’s battles, and creating quality citizens”. What is most notable here is the goal of “creating quality citizens”—addressing the third period of a soldier’s (or marine’s) life.
The MCMAP’s three stated disciplines are mental, character, and physical, and outlined in the Order as such (emphasis mine):
- Mental Discipline —Development of the combat mindset and the study of the art of war. Areas include:
- Warrior Studies —Guided discussions using individual combat citations with a battlefield close-in fighting perspective. They are designed to give the Marine the ability to compare and contrast aspects of warriors’ individual actions with their own experience in the Corps.
- Martial Culture Studies —Guided discussions highlighting societies and organizations whose primary intent is/was the creation, development, training, and sustainment of warriors.
- Combative Behavior —Study of the culture of interpersonal violence.
- Character Discipline —The Marine Corps Core Values, honor, courage, and commitment, are the cornerstones of character discipline. MCMAP employs discussions integrating the principles of values, ethics, integrity, and leadership. Character discipline stresses the importance of the Marine’s place as a warrior on the battlefield as well as a functional member in society.
- Physical Discipline —Development of fighting techniques and battlefield fitness.
In addition, the Marine Corps devised a “belt” system of rank for the MCMAP where marines attach a colored stripe to the belt of their combat gear to signify their rank within the MCMAP.
By putting the philosophy into a vernacular that the marines understand and are already accustom to, coupled with the a visible merit/rank system that not only addresses the consideration of the personality of the typical marine but effectively exploits it, the Marine Corps put into doctrine something that could not likely be achieved through implementing a non-interpolated version of a philosophy such as Aikido or Buddhism.
Aikido —The Art of Peace —The Marine Corps Martial Arts Program
Though there are many great philosophical traditions, and some that have applicability to the soldier, none address the spiritual issues facing a soldier nearly as well as those contained in the martial art of Aikido, founded by Morihei Ueshiba, and his book, The Art of Peace. A soldier wishing to incorporate a holistic approach to being both an effective soldiering and a compassionate person while on his own journey, will find this as an excellent tradition to include in his personal study.
As a proof of concept of how a spiritual philosophy and practice can be integrated into actual military doctrine, the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program’s way of employing an approach familiar to its marines is an inspired and unprecedented step in the right direction.
Gach, Gary. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Understanding Buddhism. Indianapolis: Alpha Books, 2002.
Stevens, John. The Philosophy of Aikido. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 2001
Strozzi-Heckler, Richard. In Search of the Warrior Spirit: Teaching Awareness Discipline to the Green Berets. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 2003
Ueshiba, Morihei. The Art of Peace. Trans. John Stevens. Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1992
Vollmann, William T. Rising Up and Rising Down: Some Thoughts on Violence, Freedom and Urgent Means. New York: Ecco, 2003
Mishima, Yukio. The Way of the Samurai: Yukio Mishima on Hagakure in Modern Life. Trans. Kathryn Sparling. New York: Basic Books, 1977.
Commandant of the Marine Corps. “Marine Corps Martial Arts Program.” Marine Corps Order 1500.54A. Washington D.C.: Department of the Navy, 16 December 2002: 1-3
United Nations General Assembly. “Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” New York, 10 December 1948: 1